|History or Legend?|
Posted on the Christian website, Theology Web, earlier today:
There are many Christians who believe that the Resurrection of Jesus is one of the most attested, if not the most attested, event in Antiquity (read here). I believe that this is a blatantly false claim. I believe that the alleged bodily Resurrection of Jesus is based on nothing more than assumptions and generalizations.
When analyzing an historical claim, what kind of evidence do historians prefer? Answer: Multiple, non-biased, contemporaneous sources.
Let’s use the military exploits of Alexander the Great as an example. Let’s say that there is one stele, in Macedonia/Greece, which describes a certain battle that Alexander is alleged to have won. That is certainly evidence, but it could be biased. It could record a legend. But what if we have the stele and several accounts from three Greek generals who fought with Alexander in this battle? That is much better evidence. But it still could be biased. Maybe all three generals were simply repeating the Greek version of the outcome of the battle that isn’t historically accurate. Maybe the outcome of the battle was a “draw”. But what if the opponents in the battle, let’s say the Persians, recorded the same story as did the Greeks? Now we have evidence from an adversarial source making the same claim. This is very good evidence. And of course if even more adversarial sources recorded the same event, such as if the Egyptians recorded the outcome of this battle between the Greeks and the Persians, with the same details, that makes the historical claim for this event very strong.
So let’s look at the evidence for the Resurrection.
Do we have any contemporaneous accounts of this event? Do we have any writings, written during the lifetime of Jesus, by any author, Christian, Jewish, Roman or other who recorded Jesus’ amazing feats and the claim of his Resurrection? No. Not one. No contemporaneous Christian, Jew, Roman, or pagan wrote down anything about the most amazing event to have happened in all of human history!
So let’s look at what Christians claim to be “evidence” for this alleged event, the overwhelming majority of it coming from a biased source—the Christian New Testament:
First, let’s start with the empty tomb.
Is an empty tomb evidence of a resurrection? Answer: No! An empty tomb is only evidence of an empty tomb! Christians have convinced themselves that there is only one plausible explanation for this particular tomb being empty but this is absurd. If tomorrow morning your local newspaper reports that an empty tomb has been discovered in your local cemetery, the last explanation that is going to come to your mind is a resurrection.
“But there were Roman guards at the tomb round the clock from the moment Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb to the moment that angels came and rolled away the stone on Sunday!”
No there were not!
Even if the “guard story” in Matthew is historical (which even many Christians scholars doubt), the author of Matthew specifically states that there was a period of time when the tomb was not guarded. Any number of people could have moved the body during that time period for any number of reasons. It is mind-boggling how Christians believe, based on a plethora of assumptions and generalizations, that a resurrection is more plausible than that someone moved the body.
“No Jew would move a body on the Sabbath.”
This is a generalization. We have evidence from the OT that under certain circumstances, devout Jews will break the Sabbath. In addition, after sundown on Saturday night, it is no longer the Sabbath. If there were no guards, someone could have moved the body during this time, prior to Sunday morning. In addition, this statement assumes that the only people who would have moved the body were Jews. There were Romans and other pagans in Jerusalem at the time. The idea that a resurrection is a more plausible explanation than that a Jew, Roman, or other pagan took the body is simply wishful thinking on the part of people who very much want to believe this supernatural tale.
“No Jew living in an Honor-Shame Society would have believed the very shameful Resurrection claim unless they had seen a resurrected body with their own two eyes.”
Again, a generalization based on assumptions. This assumption can easily be proven false. The Jews in Asia Minor and Greece that converted to Christianity based on Paul’s preaching did not see the resurrected body of Jesus with their own two eyes! They believed the story based on hearing it from someone else (second-hand information) and by “searching the Scriptures”. If the “Scriptures” can be searched and evidence for a shameful dying-on-a-cross/resurrected Messiah can be found, one doesn’t need to see a resurrected dead body to believe this supernatural tale. These facts prove that some first century Jews were “ripe” for believing this story. They only needed a persuasive preacher to convince them. So what does all this tell us: We should not be shocked when a small minority of a particular group of people believes a drastically new belief system…even if they are first century Jews!
“We have eyewitness testimony to the Resurrection.”
Prove it! You can’t. A substantial number (some claim the majority) of New Testament scholars doubt that the four Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. What is known about these four books is this: they were written decades after the alleged events, written in the third person, by anonymous authors, writing in far away lands, in a foreign language, some of them written in very elegant prose. It is a huge stretch of the imagination that an “unlearned” fisherman wrote the most stylistic and elegant of the four books, the Gospel of John. Possible? Sure. Probable? Absolutely not.
In addition, it has been shown that two, maybe three of the four gospels borrow heavily from the first. Why would Matthew (and possibly John, using Mark as a basic template for his story) plagiarize large sections of Mark’s book, when Mark was not an eyewitness? And if Luke was obtaining his information directly from eyewitnesses, why would he plagiarize a large percentage of Mark’s book into his own gospel? That would mean that at best, Luke was quoting John Mark, who was quoting Peter, who was telling stories about events which had happened in previous years (Mark was not written until 65-75 AD). That is third hand information, folks! And we have no proof that Luke’s “eyewitness accounts” were not simply stories of “eyewitness accounts” passed down by word of mouth.
“Oral traditions in first century Judaism were meticulously guarded for accuracy.”
Can Christians prove that there were never any exceptions to this generalization? No. Are we to believe that every story that circulated in first century Judaism maintained its accuracy? It may be true that the oral tradition of the Hebrew Bible was closely guarded for accuracy, but can we really be sure that stories of angels, dead bodies rising out of their graves, and levitations into clouds were never embellished or changed? Don’t the gospels themselves prove this generalization false? Compare the four stories of the Resurrection in the four gospels. There are some very significant differences, in particular, Matthew’s claim of guards at the tomb, a claim that no other gospel author mentions. And when did all the disciples see the resurrected Jesus? One gospel says that the eleven all saw him on the same day of the Resurrection in the Upper Room, while another says that Thomas was absent and did not see Jesus until a week later. In one gospel the disciples are told to go to Galilee and in another they are told not to leave Jerusalem until the coming of the Holy Spirit! Yes, Christians have harmonizations for each of these issues, but one must admit that the stories themselves contain significant differences.
“But the disciples would not die for a lie.”
Assumption. We have no evidence that even one of the original Eleven died because he refused to recant seeing a resurrected body, other than Church tradition, written centuries later.
“The amazing growth of Christianity is evidence that the Resurrection was true.”
Major assumption! Many strange sects, of many different religions, have seen amazing growth, even under severe persecution.
“But even some non-Christian scholars believe that the Resurrection is the best explanation of the evidence, such as the Jewish scholar, Lapide.”
So what? Imagine today if one Jewish scholar declares that he believes that the Mormon claim of ancient, sea-faring Hebrews colonizing North America is true. Would that be sufficient evidence for all of us to believe the Mormon claim? Of course not.
“But the Resurrection has to be true because Jesus fulfilled all the prophecies in the Old Testament.”
Assumption after assumption after assumption.
First, even if we assume that all the alleged prophecies in the Old Testament that Christians claim point to Jesus being a suffering/dying/virgin-born Messiah are true, that still doesn’t prove that Jesus’ dead body exited his tomb. Where in the Old Testament does it explicitly state that the Messiah will be buried in a sealed tomb and that his resurrected body will somehow exit the tomb and ascend into heaven? Nowhere.
Secondly, the claim that the Old Testament talks about Jesus is a major Christian assumption. The overwhelming majority of Jewish scholars say that the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible) says NOTHING about Jesus and that all the passages that Christians claim point to Jesus are mistranslated or misconstrued. Again, which is more probable: First century Christians, desperately looking for any evidence to support their belief that Jesus is the Messiah, scoured the Old Testament for passages which could be construed to refer to Jesus; Christians translators then slanted their translations of those passages with a bias towards the Christian interpretation…similar to what Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and Mormons have done with the New Testament, discovering passages which prophesy things that no Christian for the last 2,000 years has ever heard of…or…a dead man really did exit his sealed tomb in a supernatural body to ascend into the clouds??
“But Papias knew that John Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark and Papias knew Polycarp.”
Papias never says that he knew any alleged eyewitness to the Resurrection personally and Papias never states that any disciple of an eyewitness told him the details of the Resurrection. Even if Papias knew Polycarp, and Polycarp was a disciple of John, son of Zebedee, is that proof that Polycarp told Papias about an empty tomb and the details of the post-death appearances of Jesus? No. Maybe John, son of Zebedee, only had a vision of Jesus, which he believed to be a sign that Jesus had bodily risen from the dead, and that is what he told Polycarp. We just don’t know! We have no statement from Polycarp in which he details the events of the Resurrection as told to him by John, son of Zebedee.
“But Paul was an eyewitness to the Resurrected Body of Jesus.”
Nope. Paul says himself in Acts 26 that his experience on the Damascus Road was a “heavenly vision”. A vision of a talking bright light is not the same as seeing and touching a resurrected dead body.
“But Paul would have discussed the Resurrection details with the apostles during his several trips to Jerusalem.”
Assumption. Paul doesn’t tell us what he discussed with the Eleven. Maybe the Eleven “saw” Jesus in the same fashion that Paul “saw” Jesus: a bright, light in a vision.
“But we have the Creed in First Corinthians 15 that says that 500 people at once saw Jesus. Five hundred people can’t all have the same vision.”
Who were these five hundred? Where did this sighting occur? What did they all see? Did they all see a cloud formation in the sky that they all thought was Jesus? Did they see “Jesus” in the same way that thousands of Roman Catholics, in the same location, all at the same time, have seen “Mary”?
We don’t know because neither Paul nor anyone else gives us any details!
“But Paul says that most of the five hundred were still alive, so if he had been lying or mistaken, people could have verified this claim.”
Assumption. Paul specifically states that he got this information from “others”. Where did these “others” get their information? For all we know the source of this “five hundred” claim came from one guy showing up in Jerusalem five years after the Crucifixion and saying, “Hey, my cousin in Persia says that five hundred people there saw Jesus all at the same time, and most of them are still alive to verify the story.”
And voila! This “appearance” of Jesus gets added to the “Creed” which already listed the names of all the prominent men in the Church who had had visions of Jesus, similar to Paul’s. We don’t know how this Creed developed.
“But if the Creed was written within five years of the Resurrection, it had to have occurred.”
Assumption. As an example: a story circulated very shortly after the death of Charles Darwin, that on his deathbed he had converted to Christianity. This story continued to circulate in Christian circles for years, even though the children of Darwin, who were present at his bedside when he died, were still alive and repeatedly denied the claim.
So you see, folks, the evidence for the Resurrection is so poor that in no way can any Christian justify claiming that the Resurrection is the most attested event in Antiquity. It most certainly is not. It is a supernatural claim propped up by generalizations and assumptions.
If we were to find out that Alexander the Great did not win a particular battle that historians have always believed he won, what difference would it make in each of our lives? Answer: Not much if any. But imagine the consequences if the world was given absolute proof that Jesus is still dead. That the Resurrection did not happen. The lives of millions of people all over the world would be drastically affected and changed. I believe that this points out the fundamental reason why millions of people are willing to believe the tenuous evidence, if it can be called that, for this supernatural claim: their entire world view and their life depends on it being true!
If the Resurrection of Jesus were viewed with the same dispassion as any other historical claim from Antiquity, very few people would claim that this event ever happened. The evidence just isn’t there.